By Greg Price
Well, my Dallas Cowboys season is now over after a heart-breaking 34-31 loss to the Green Bay Packers on a last-second, 51-yard field goal by Mason Crosby in Sunday’s NFL playoff game.
With a 13-3 regular-season record and the first team to secure a first-round playoff bye, many people have been saying the team underachieved given its regular-season dominance — I am not one of them.
If there is any sports expert or even the most devote Dallas Cowboys fan out there, saying they expected the season the Cowboys just had — they are bold-faced lying.
Everyone saw the train wreck season that was 2015 when Tony Romo went down with injury and the Cowboys limped along to a 4-12 record. Romo hurt himself again with a back injury in the pre-season where even the back-up QB at the time in Kellen Moore suffered a season-ending injury. Given many experts were predicting that the 2016 version of the Dallas Cowboys would have a bottom-third rated defence, things were looking grim.
But enter fourth-round pick and quarterback from Mississippi State, Dak Prescott and first-round pick and running back from Ohio State, Ezekiel Elliott. Like Wolverine says with the X-Men, the defence is a good offence. Prescott would have one of the best rookie seasons by a quarterback of all time with 23 touchdowns and four interceptions in the regular season, garnering a 104.9 quarterback rating and rushing for six touchdowns as the cherry on top of the NFL sundae. Behind arguably the best offensive line in the NFL, Elliott rambled for 1,631 yards, averaging 5.1 yards a carry, and earning another 363 yards through the air on 32 receptions. Elliott proved to be an all-down back as well, proving his mettle in pass protection as well.
The no-name defence apart from All-pro Sean Lee proved to be a plucky bunch, finishing as a top-five scoring defence in the league, as the bend-don’t break defence made big stops at critical times during the regular season.
It was truly a fun season to watch and I was glad to watch what may amount to by some as the best game in the 2016 season with a good friend in Jason Jensen on Sunday.
The fellow local football coach and Packers fan I’ve always respected while talking football, at it was a nice departure from the ramblings I saw on social media as the big game approached this past Sunday. Apparently everyone was taking their turn as Nostradamus, predicting exact scores and why their team would win, all while hurling the stale insults of Cowgirls on one side and Fudge Packers on the other (yes, unfortunately in the world of uncouth sports fans, homophobic slurs are common place).
The Packers were stalling out as 4-6 part way through the season when perennial Pro Bowl and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers made the bold claim that this squad would run the table. Low and behold, Rodgers goes on an absolute tear, throwing touchdown after touchdown with nary an interception despite a middling running game and an overall defence that scares very few.
As the hottest team heading into the playoffs, any Cowboys fan who thought it was going to be a walk in the park this past Sunday was not paying attention. Inversely, using that same logic to say the Packers were going to shred the Cowboys ‘horrible’ defence (in which statistics showed all season long, was not the case compared to the other 31 teams in the league), and the homerism I was seeing on both sides on social media got to the point of maddening.
It was nice having some pre-analysis of the game with Jensen for about an hour-and-half before kickoff as we prepared to watch the game at a sports bar in Lethbridge. Analysis that included rock-solid logic as opposed to ‘your team sucks’ diatribes.
Recounting some past Packers and Cowboys glory was fun along with some other NFL shop talk of other teams still in the playoffs.
We thought the game was going to be close, explaining with logic why it would be, and it couldn’t get any closer than a game that was won in the dying seconds of regulation on a lengthy, clutch field goal. We both wanted a good game given all the contests the previous week were dregs, and we got one, a nail-biting contest that may very well go down as the best game of the 2016 playoffs.
So here is some analysis both positive and negative with some armchair coaching thrown in of Sunday’s Cowboys playoff game and season in general:
Tom Brady? Never heard of her: I of course jest in playing the accomplishments of Tom Brady, a future first-ballot Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest quarterback of all time. Many prognosticators have already given the Superbowl to the Patriots. But if the Packers manage to make it past the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game, I’m tempted to take the points and bet on the Packers to win the Superbowl with the serious mojo Rodgers has going that has been unparalleled in recent memory. An eight-game win streak that has had Rodgers toss 21 touchdowns and one interception, with a lesser running game and defence than the Patriots possess, and it’s a script worth noting.
Shades of Aikman: As I watched Sunday’s playoff game unfold, I thought I was seeing shades of the Dallas Cowboys NFC Championship game in 1994 against the San Francisco 49ers. Both games had the Cowboys fall behind big and both games the Cowboys lost…but not before heroic comebacks by young quarterbacks that truly put a scare into the opposition. I would argue, even though it was a loss, it was one of the best games of Troy Aikman’s career, a Hall of Famer and three-time champion.
Prescott was equally as impressive, going toe-to-toe with Rodgers, throwing for over 300 yards, three touchdowns and garnering a quarterback rating of 103.2. Prescott got leveled tying the game 28-28 with a quarterback run up the middle for the two-point conversion. There are so many variables that can affect a professional athlete’s career, but shattering numerous NFL quarterback rookie records and having that performance in his first-ever playoff game, and it looks like Prescott has a long and successful career in front of him.
Running man: I get hindsight is 20/20, but I still wonder out loud why the Cowboys did the offensive game plan they did in Sunday’s playoff game.
The Cowboys had a 3rd-and-2 deep in Packers territory in their opening drive and they decide to pass. Incompletion and they kick the field goal. They have a 2nd-and-1 deep in Packers territory and they decide to do a hitch pass. Interception. They have a 3rd-and-3 in their last drive of the game, a drive that could have very well been the nail in the coffin. Depending on how many yards are gained on third down, it could even be two downs to make the first down in a game-winning touchdown drive. Incompletion and a field goal with the clock stopped to give the Packers enough time for Rodgers to work his magic for the Packers game-winning field goal. All game long the Packers proved they could not stop the run with Elliott averaging nearly six yards a carry behind the best offensive line in football and Elliott doesn’t break the 20-carry threshold until late in the fourth quarter. A team whose whole identity all season long has been ball control, long drives that could have kept Rodgers off the field and time and time again the Cowboys choose to pass on second and third and short, even though the Packers showed little resistance against the run all game long. Baffling to say the least. Sometimes I think this game of football that I love is made way more complicated than it needs to be.
Flagged: After watching Sunday’s game, and the Cowboys season in general, I for one am in favour of refereeing in the NFL being a full-time job given the number of questionable calls I’ve seen both for and against. The Cowboys had their share of questionable calls go against them including a non-call on Jason Witten in a catch attempt in the end zone, a pass interference call that was actually a hold (fewer yards on the penalty) and even in the definitive moment when Rodgers spun away from pressure and did his laser-like precision pass in his 38-yard completion to Jared Cook to set up the game-winning field goal, replays show Packers guard T.J. Lang’s arm along Cowboys defensive lineman David Irving neck with a hold while he was chasing Rodgers down. There were some ticky-tack calls that were made that showed far less than that were called. That being said, the Cowboys got away with their fair share as well, including a laughable holding by a defensive back which literally yanked the Packers’ jersey off their shoulder pad, yet no call. No game is ever going to be called perfectly, but any extra help you can give a referee to do their job better is going to lead to less blown calls during critical times.
Win it for Witten: I hope Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten returns for his 15th NFL season in 2017 and the Cowboys win the Superbowl. While that would be nice for me as a fan, if anyone deserves a Superbowl, it is Witten with what he has meant to the NFL and the Dallas Cowboys franchise as a whole. The surefire Hall of Famer is approaching 1,100 receptions and 12,000 yard receiving, all while being a solid blocker on running plays. Witten is simply one of the great tight ends in the NFL of all time.
Up until a few seasons ago, the Dallas Cowboys have been a bit of a circus as a franchise in the last 20 years, yet Witten has always been a steadying force despite all the distractions, going about his business with class and professionalism, and proving to be an iron man, gutting through injuries and at one time, playing in 219 consecutive games. Witten has been my favourite player in the last 15-20 years for these very reasons and it would be nice to see him retire on a high note.